From Progressivism to Neoconservatism

In the above video, the beginning discussion about Franklin Delano Roosevelt is quite significant. He didn’t just seek to boost the economy by increasing employment and promoting consumerism. The rise of early progressivism, beginning with Theodore Roosevelt and continuing with FDR, was tied up with corporatism, militarism, imperialism, expansionism, and racism. TR was famously bigoted and xenophobic but so was FDR. Both needed to get the support of Southern racists and working class whites. Progressivism sought to make America a great nation that would compete globally, both in terms of economic success and military power. Progressivism was America first on steroids. And that America was very much a white America.

Some of those early progressives, specifically Jews in support of Israeli Zionism, started the neocon movement and switched to the GOP. They maintained the progressive vision of a powerful free society (at least, free for whites) and combined it with a cold war mentality of theocratic-slanted capitalist realism, which was used to further exacerbate the Anglo-American strain of Manifest Destiny and White Man’s Burden. This is where Ronald Reagan’s sunny optimism came from, as he always admired FDR. And that confident optimism was easily brought in line with nationalist bravado. Like progressivism, neoconservatism wasn’t isolationist but quite the opposite.

The neocons complained about government and welfare, but they pushed for big spending, military buildup, corporate subsidies, and nation building. Reagan raised taxes more than he cut them while expanding the number of federal jobs, all of which was done with a conservative majority in Congress. They wanted a new expression of progressivism by different means. At the same time, Democrats almost entirely gave up on progressivism and, in its place, took up a status quo pseudo-liberalism (often in the form of neoliberalism). This gave the neocons free reign to more fully co-opt the progressive worldview while subverting it to ever more reactionary ideology.

The Roosevelts had a genuine sense of paternalistic noblesse oblige, that is to say with great power comes great responsibility. TR, as a conservative progressive, hated the radical left-wing. Yet TR argued that socialists were right in the problems they brought up and that those problems needed to be taken care of or else the public would vote for socialists. FDR, although a liberal progressive, also wasn’t friendly toward the radical left-wing which is why he became the most union-busting president in US history, before and since. But like the trust-busting TR, neither was FDR fond of monopolistic and oligopolistic corporations.

Corporatism was promoted by FDR giving out corporate subsidies (the origin of big ag). It was intended to bring big biz into alignment with big gov, with the latter calling the shots. The goal was to place labor and business under a common cause of economic and social progress, a strategy that competed with the then popular fascist and ethno-nationalist ideology of an organized society. Fascism was a much more feared threat than communism at the time. Soft corporatism kept in check by social democracy seemed like a decent compromise, considering the alternative as seen in other countries.

The neocons later sought to reverse this progressive formula by creating inverted totalitarianism where big biz gained the upper hand over big gov, through various methods: corporate personhood, big biz media consolidation, propagandistic right-wing think tanks, astroturf front groups and fake movements, lobbyist power, indirect bribery, revolving door politics, regulatory capture, no-bid contracts, privatization, defunding of public education, etc. It was corporatism turned on its head and no longer serving the public good, not even for most whites. This co-opted corporatism bypassed standard fascism and went straight to corporate rule. That is how paternalistic progressivism became full-blown plutocracy. The Reagan neocons were able to sell this using a number of rhetorical tactics and political maneuvers: Starve the Beast and Two Santa Claus theory, Supply Side Voodoo Reaganomics and Trickle Down promises to float all boats.

The Clinton Democrats, building off of Jimmy Carter’s austerity-minded pre-Reaganomics (along with Carter’s anti-welfare and anti-union politics), then played into this confused push toward the right-wing. Bush and Obama helped to further establish the reactionary neoconservatism in the post-9/11 world, always with dashes of neoliberal ‘free’ trade bullshit — the two parties falling ever more into lockstep. As FDR was more union-busting than any other president, Obama was the most immigrant deporting of any president, not even the present president yet outdoing Obama’s anti-immigrant accomplishments. And this dominant paradigm of mutated ideology is what set the stage for yet another demagogue using progressive rhetoric to win the presidency, which brings us to Trump riding a populist backlash into power.

Trump was able to successfully manipulate trends that had been developing for more than a century. And Hillary Clinton had no alternative to offer because she was fully entrenched in the establishment worldview. The brilliance of Trump, by way of Steve Bannon, was to combine early 20th century progressive rhetoric with early 20th century isolationist rhetoric, and that proved to be a potent mix. But this mix was only possible because of the growing bipartisan racism that was able to lock together old school progressivism and isolationism, a strange brew of optimistic promise and fear-mongering, hope and hate.

Here is what changed. Paternalistic technocracy has long been the ideal of the ruling elite of both parties. It goes back to the claims of an enlightened aristocracy from early American politics. The early progressives followed more closely the view of an enlightened aristocracy. That is what the Roosevelt family represented. They didn’t deserve power because they were from a business family but because they promised to use their inherited power and privilege toward the public good.

The neocons, in cahoots with the pseudo-libertarians, came to argue that the optimal technocrat to rule the country should be a businessman (sometimes combined with the utopian night watchman state, a government without need of governance). That capitalist class elitism has finally been fulfilled by Trump, a man who has styled himself as a successful businessman. According to the neocons, only someone like Trump could solve the country’s problems. They finally got what they wanted. But the reality is that Trump is as much a product of inherited wealth as the rest: the Bush family, the Kennedy family, and the Roosevelt family (while other politicians have to suck up to this plutocratic aristocracy to gain access to wealth and power). Trump would be deemed a failed businessman in terms of a functioning free market which of course doesn’t exist, even as he is a symbolic representative of success within present capitalist realism (i.e., actual functioning capitalism), which is to say plutocratic cronyism wielding power through oligarchy. His wealth was not the product of meritocracy, if we assume that meritocracy is based on the concept of genuine earned merit.

The neocons have pushed plutocracy under the guise of deceptive rhetoric. Sure, there was always a dark element going back to the beginnings of progressivism. But the Roosevelts could never have dreamed this is what would become of the progressive tradition. They avoided the extremes of authoritarianism in their own era, but in the process they helped to give birth to a new and even more threatening monster. This neocon neo-imperialism as global superpower, at this point, would likely require a global revolution for it to be dismantled. Paternalistic noblesse oblige has long been thrown aside. In the void left behind, obscene wealth and brute power has become its own justification.

Yet the memory of old school progressivism, faint and distorted as it may be, still holds the public imagination. The progressive label, as polls show, has gained favor among the majority of Americans. Bernie Sanders being the most popular political leader at present demonstrates this. If another strong and inspiring Roosevelt-style candidate comes along, he or she would be able to take the presidency by storm. That is what the plutocracy fears the most.

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National Debt, Starve the Beast, & Wealth Disparity

Old School Progressivism

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Old School Progressivism

It will be as exciting as the 1930s.
~ Stephen K. Bannon, Donald Trump’s chief strategist

Here is a small history lesson.

It appears that many Americans, across the ideological and demographic spectrum, are quite confused by this seeming new species of politics we’re seeing. But the fact is that it isn’t new. And it isn’t just hidden prejudices surfacing from the deep like Moby Dick, the great white whale that destroys the ship. There is some racism and misogyny being churned up, and it is blatant in a way not seen in a long while. But the question is what is churning it up.

I’ve had a suspicion for a while and some statements by Trump’s adviser, Steve Bannon, seem to confirm it. Bannon said that he isn’t a white nationalist, rather an American nationalist and economic nationalist, and that if they do things right even minorities will support them. He talked about concrete policies like a trillion dollar infrastructure project. The Trump administration apparently is trying to revive old school progressivism. I find it interesting that liberal Democrats no longer recognize it, even as it smacks them upside the head — they viciously attacked economic populism as if it were a dangerous invader when it showed up in their own party.

So, what is old school progressivism?

Progressivism of the past did tend to be socially conservative in some ways and comfortable with certain kinds of prejudices. The old school progressive leaders were fine with making alliances with racists, if that was needed to accomplish their goals. The religious right has historically loved old school progressivism, when it comes to power, and old school progressives tend to find common cause with the religious right. Populist reform mixes economic reform with social and moral reform.

Progressive leaders like the Roosevelts, also coming from inherited business wealth, were strongly nationalistic and promoted patriotism. They were all for a strong military and strong borders, leading to a mistrust of perceived foreigners and restrictions on immigration. And if you were seen as not being in the national interest for the moment, as happened with certain minorities during WWII (Japanese-Americans, German-Americans, and Italian-Americans), you just might find yourself thrown into a internment camp. They were law and order presidents who didn’t mind using force when necessary, not always worrying about political correct niceties. But when possible, they were more than happy to use a carrot rather than a stick… or to walk quietly while carrying a big stick.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt came into power and cleaned house. He basically told everyone that they’d play nice together… or else! When unions tried to assert their power, he responded by being the most union-busting president seen in US history. Yet when big biz got out of hand in being overtly oppressive and even violent toward workers, he stepped in to demand that workers were treated with basic decency and fairness. The interests of both workers and capitalists were forced to fall in line with national interests. It was a progressive corporatism that only later became reactionary corporatism. And he raised the taxes on businesses and on the rich like never seen before or since to help fund those national interests.

He used that tax money to build the middle class with aid to veterans, cheap college and housing, a strong welfare state, and worker protections. If you were willing to work hard and work within the system, you felt secure in knowing you’d probably do well. This was the foundation of what many came to see as the American Dream. He also used that tax money to build infrastructure and modernize the entire country, bringing the national economy into position as part of the country’s new global power, so that American businesses had the power of the US government behind them in the boom years as US military and economy became a global force following the aftermath of WWII.

We haven’t seen an old school progressive elected to the presidency since that time. And so we’ve forgotten what it looks like… or at least what it sounds like. We have no idea if Trump will follow through on this political vision that is still in the process of being formulated. But that also fits into the uncertainty that is felt by many when progressivism comes to power, bringing along with it a tinge of radicalism and risk-taking, putting everything on the line to create a new order.

I’m not saying you should support Trump and feel inspired by his vision. I’ve never thought he necessarily meant anything he has said. And I’ve never trusted his motivations. I’d apply the same caution toward Bannon, of course. Even so, you should understand what it is that’s being said and why it is so powerful at times like these. This kind of populist rhetoric leading to this kind of populist movement is far from unknown in American history. And it doesn’t easily fall into simple left/right categories. Even if you want to fight it, you better understand what you’re fighting. Old school progressivism is a powerful beast.

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There is another aspect of old school progressivism. It just occurred to me. The aspect is that of technocratic management, sometimes associated with modern liberalism but with its origins in early Progressivism.

The clear example of it was FDR’s administration. He saw society and the economy as something to be managed and, of course, it was assumed that those who would manage it were the technocratic experts. It wasn’t just that there needed to be central management. That had existed before. The difference was that it was an overt and direct management.

That is what justified forcing both organized labor and the capitalist class to work together. Prior to that, the labor wars were often violent, sometimes erupting into gunfights between workers and corporate goons, often the Pinkertons. The Progressive vision was in response to a violent and lawless time in US history, what felt like social breakdown with the rise of gangs and organized crime, along with the privatized police forces like the Pinkertons.

It was also a time of corruption with many politicians being openly bribed. The idea of Progressivism was to create a professional bureaucracy that eliminated cronyism, favoritism, nepotism, and all other forms of corruption. The idea was to create a meritocracy within the government. The most qualified people would be put into official positions and so this decision-making taken out of the control of party leaders.

It would be a well managed government.

So, it was interesting when I heard Trump use similar rhetoric, from something he said a year ago. The specific issue he was talking about is irrelevant, as he walked back his support immediately afterward. It was the way of talking itself that matters most, as it shows the kind of attitude he will bring to politics. In explaining how he would accomplish something, he stated that:

“It would be just good management. What you have to do is good management procedures and we can do that… it’s all about management, our country has no management.”

The issue that he was talking about is relevant in one particular way. It was about law and order. That is what management meant in old school progressivism. A well managed society was an orderly society based on the rule of law and enforced by a professional bureaucracy. There is a paternalism in this worldview, the heart of progressivism. The purpose of a government was seen as taking care of problems and taking care of the citizenry.

I’ll be curious to see what this kind of language means for the Trump administration.